Medieval zombies: how the walking dead haunted the Middle Ages

Until the Enlightenment, even the most learned agreed that the dead could rise from their graves. Darren Oldridge, the author of a book on seemingly 'strange' ideas from the past, explores the origins of the belief

Detail from The Last Judgement, a fresco in the Sistine Chapel painted by the Italian Renaissance painter Michelangelo. The scene depicts the Second Coming of Christ and the final judgement of all humanity. (Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

The corpse would not be still. It thrashed and groaned when the executioner tried to subdue it, and foam spilled from its mouth. The dead man was eventually dumped in a grave and covered with earth; but he still made “such a rumbling and tumbling in it, that the very earth was raised, and the mules were so heaved up that they could hardly keep them down”.

George Sinclair told this story in 1684. Seven years later, he became professor of mathematics at Glasgow University. He did not present his tale as an instance of peasant superstition, nor misdiagnosed death. He believed the corpse had returned to life. He noted that the account came “from a very creditable person, who being a scholar there at that time, was an eye and ear witness, who is yet alive”. Sinclair’s acceptance of such events placed him in the mainstream of European thinking. He shared his belief in the existence of “revenants”, or revitalised cadavers, with James VI and I, King of Scotland, England and Ireland as well as the esteemed Cambridge philosopher, Henry More. More wrote in 1655 that he could not “so much as imagine” how anyone could doubt the existence of these creatures, so convincing were the reports about them.

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